The Secret History of Clubhouse V - The Influencers and The Creators

How Clubhouse transitioned from community to Creators.

Editors note: The Clubhouse fam is sending their best wishes to WOLF x LION who is currently in hospital suffering from COVID. If you’re able, please consider donating here : https://www.gofundme.com/f/fundraiser-for-jin-yu-wolfxlion-hospital-stay

This next chapter in Clubhouse history is roughly chronological but has some overlap with Part IV. After the election and racial tension on Clubhouse rising to a boil, things seemed to shift. I’m not sure if I would say they ‘calmed down’ so much as changed.

As a bit of parallel history, James Andrews has published a one year retrospective on Clubhouse which I encourage you to check out for another perspective on the history of the platform.

The Burning Man That Never Ended

Clubhouse began to no longer feel like a cool summer camp, but more like if Black Rock City didn’t evaporate at the end of Burning Man, but remained a city. Those that arrived at that point would probably treat the Playa as less of a special and sacred space, and more of just another place. For example, some would come to treat it as a resource to exploit, or as a place to plant their particular ideological flag.

Prior to this turning point, the ‘how to Clubhouse’ content took a few different forms. Up until a certain size, you’d get an onboarding room directly with Paul Davison and Rohan Seth open to everyone who joined that week. There was also community led education and onboarding efforts, both in the culture of ‘Welcome Rooms’ and weekly sessions hosted to talk about Clubhouse in general by some in the community who had been growing large welcome / community clubs since Clubhouse began.

There was a bit of an absence of the original culture due to many focusing on the election, and the rising hostility and trolling on the platform was such that many stopped doing welcome rooms because you were guaranteed to get some trolling, and sometimes blatant anti - semitism / anti - LGBTQ+ behaviour.

Something which is a given on just about any other social media platform was quite striking to those who had been on the platform prior to it taking root.

It’s quite possible that Clubhouse was always intended to be a media company (their messaging has gone back and forth between creators and more social aspects of the platform), but the early state allowed for some of the most interesting voices and perspectives I’ve ever encountered on the internet much less social media.

I think it was mostly the lack of expectations, and of Clubhouse being like ‘the real world’. The people that don’t often venture forth and share themselves, or those who encounter challenges in typical social circles like the neuro-diverse had a very friendly environment to flourish in.

I’ve thought a lot about what exactly made ‘old Clubhouse’ great, and beyond forging authentic connections I think it was really the lack of class and social stratification. I remember being quite awestruck by becoming friends with multiple people whom I probably would have taken an immediate dislike to on Twitter just on the basis of their content. I think a more accurate description of one of the Clubhouse marketing points of ‘scaling empathy’ is that Clubhouse can foster empathy under the right conditions, but it’s not a given of the social audio medium.

Also for a time on Clubhouse, there was no such thing as a private room, and follower counts weren’t yet the social credit score they are on many other platforms. Everyone was just another Clubhouse user, and you either liked what they had to say or you didn’t. The popular conception of Clubhouse as the rich people social network (for a time) does a disservice in terms of how special ‘old Clubhouse’ was. Yet it was definitely the perception in corners of Twitter, when I offered invites to some anarchist friends, their responses bordered on disgust.

The Millionaires Arrive

Before we talk about the influencers, and the creators, we have to talk about the Clubhouse ‘millionaires’. Up until a certain point, you could be reasonably assured that a Clubhouse user’s bio was accurate, and they did possess the expertise they were claiming. It was one of the ingredients that made almost every room you might see interesting and worth going into.

At a certain point, bios became inflated and the beginnings of what has sometimes been described as a non-stop radio commercial descended on the platform.

I first noticed this in cannabis and psychedelic rooms with ‘experts’ dishing out questionable advice such as casually giving psychedelics to children and characterizing 1 gram of psilocybin mushrooms as a microdose. What most people saw, though, was the millionaires. Broadly, they were/are a class of Clubhouse users who primarily used the platform to sell their eBooks, courses, and private club membership so that you too would soon be able to be talking on Clubhouse poolside from your new mansion.

Eventually, the millionaires began designing flare for their Clubhouse profile pictures, or as they put it, influencer signals. They were different coloured circles around their profile pictures, often with rope-like textures signifying their net worth. One of the millionaire’s private clubs was called the ‘Power Circle’, and this label was broadly applied to anyone with the aforementioned profile picture flare. Many ex-Clubhouse users I have spoken to said that it was their hallway filling up with millionaire rooms that really turned them off that platform, and I think a reason for that is it signaled the beginning of commodification, which in itself foreshadowed the rush to monetization.

So, we ridiculed the power circles, not knowing that one of their ringleaders would eventually make it into Clubhouse’s creator pilot program. Some, like Manny Fernandez would engage in behaviour like charging people to pitch to them.

Other names became notable, and an unlikely hero emerged to put the ‘Millionaires’ in their place : investor Jason Calacanis. There’s a fairly famous exchange between Calacanis, Manny Fernandez and JT Foxx, in which Jason is accused of being illiterate (among other golden moments).

What Makes An Influencer?

After the millionaires, there were the influencers. Early users became ‘influencers’ either by their placement on the suggested user list, or on the basis of their content. Few, if any, referred to themselves as Clubhouse influencers or filled their bio with copy that resembled an influencer resume.

Eventually though, users began to join who did approach Clubhouse from the more traditional influencer perspective.

People who were on the platform for a relatively short amount of time began to give ‘Master Moderator’ classes, and advise people to be sure to put that phrase in their bios so other Clubhouse users would know how great they were at moderating a room. This was probably the beginning of top-down culture change.

I don’t really want to debate the merits of this kind of approach to Clubhouse in this particular series, other than to say it seemed to me that both the millionaires and this shift made Clubhouse feel less authentic and more transactional. Welcome rooms also shifted to be less of a communal participatory event and more of a podcast with some questions taken at the end. The original welcome room format was impossible to scale, so this change was probably inevitable, but it seems like it also led to shifts away from the original culture.

This also seems to be the point where larger stages became normalized, and some rooms would have people waiting hours to contribute to the discussion or ask a question. My qualms here are probably mostly with a certain point of scale than anything else, but this shifted a bit of the ‘Clubhouse is a job’ paradigm onto audience members as well. A room which sticks out was entitled ‘How to establish yourself on Clubhouse before it goes public’, which continued in several editions and seemed to mostly be a room of people advertising their clubs with little actual expert advice given.

If I had to continue to extend the Burning Man analogy, this point would probably be if each camp had a ‘How-To Burning Man’ booth set up. Some of the influencer led sessions seemed quite authentic, and with others the subtle notes of growth hacking and clout chasing began to rear themselves.

Overall, you could find both authentic community and overt notes of growth hacking and clout chasing. The easiest, and simplest way to put it is that Clubhouse was increasingly becoming more like the real world, both in positive and negative ways.

Clubhouse Clout Chasing Makes It Into Wikipedia

Clout chasing eventually descended upon Clubhouse en-masse, much as it does everywhere else. The epitome of it was probably an event that actually found its way into Wikipedia. I am mentioning actual names here only because the article on the event does as well. The happening concerned Youtuber Jimmy Donaldson aka MrBeast and Farokh Sarmad, known prior to Clubhouse for growing a large instagram following and during / after Clubhouse for being an influencer in the Non-Fungible Token (NFT) crypto space.

Allegedly Farokh was removed from the stage due to Donaldson stating he couldn’t pronounce his name, however both Donaldson and others present have stated that he was clearing the stage to make room for female speakers and he was just making sure he pronounced Farokh’s name correctly.

There are both written pieces and Youtube videos of the incident and aftermath available if you are so inclined, and probably the only other thing to be said about the incident itself is that alleged micro-aggressions, sexism, and racism seem to be a feature of many moments in Clubhouse history.

Clubhouse Creators

Finally, we arrive at the ‘Creator’ era of Clubhouse. Some backstory is, of course, necessary. There had been consistent dialogue on Clubhouse, some of which has repeated when it comes to other platforms like Tik Tok, about Black creators and whether platforms do enough to support them. Monetization, equity and platform support are common pillars of these discussions that occur on Clubhouse and elsewhere.

‘The Lion King’ is probably one of the best known Clubhouse productions, and is in many ways a good an example as any of the direction the platform’s content would take. After putting on production after production, there seemed to a general feeling that the platform was not doing enough for creators and multiple discussions were had about what the reaction from the community should be. In many of these rooms, a common PTR in the audience was ‘Clubhouse is not Black owned’. Monetization was also a sore point, as much of the platform had de-facto monetized by putting their Cashapp addresses in their profiles, but there was not yet a way to give creators funds in-application.

Eventually, Clubhouse created something called the ‘Creator Pilot Program’. This was a grouping of some of the platform’s users into a club and Whatsapp group in order to solicit feedback and suggestions on the platform’s approach to creators. The concept was fairly straightforward, but the execution kicked up a fair amount of controversy.

Clubhouse’s Creator Communication Issue

There was little to no communication from Clubhouse itself prior to the community finding out about the group’s creation. I learned of its existence in a room that featured one of the Clubhouse millionaires who called themselves ‘CEO Matty J’ and his PTR of a closed club that featured Clubhouse staff as members. The club was entitled ‘Everything In Moderation’, with a sub-heading of ‘Including Moderation’. I originally thought Clubhouse was perhaps going to put more effort into on-platform moderation training, but that turned out to not be the case.

Pictured: What CEO Matty J had as his PTR when I discovered this club for the first time.

More formal communication from Clubhouse would have helped quell some of the controversy that followed.

CEO Matty J was heard to describe the club as a secret beta group, and that its members had access to room analytic and moderation features others did not. This behaviour fanned the flames of FOMO that were already raging over Clubhouse’s first de-facto partner program.

Partner programs exist on other platforms like Twitch and Youtube, and confer benefits to streamers with minimum levels of certain KPI’s like watch time, followers, and engagement. For those that aren’t in those programs but want to be, FOMO and envy can make some very ugly appearances, and they certainly did on Clubhouse as well. This is probably best described as human nature, but things might have been less vicious had better communication (and repudiation of some of the group’s members boasting of non-existent benefits) taken place.

The public also found out about the program before any official Clubhouse communications, as a New York Times article from Taylor Lorenz described it as well as continuing anti-semitism on the platform. I was contacted for a contribution regarding anti-LGBTQ+ activity on the platform but missed the email until well after publication.

Eventually, a group known as the Audio Collective would form with a subset of this pilot group’s membership. The concept works out to a hybrid of an agency, creator house, and managed content network. They were the subject of Taylor Lorenz’s next piece of Clubhouse content, but seem to be no longer all that active from the details shared in James Andrews retrospective.

Clubhouse would eventually have more official programs such as the initial Creator First program, as well as similar programs for India and Brazil. These programs were marketed as accelerators, and meant to give creators with an idea a boost in terms of marketing materials, equipment, and a stipend. Many who I spoke to who had been creating content prior to the announcement of the initial Creator First program felt that what was offered was not enough to cover the time they invested in their content, but those economics may work out differently in emerging markets and for other creators.

The End Of History, Except For One More Chapter

After five installments, we are at the end of my telling of the secret history of Clubhouse. Many other events happened, of course, but what I’ve written is what I believe to be the most culturally important to the platform. Clubhouse is now open to the public, has gone through a major rebrand, and is now one among many players in the social audio space.

There is one more piece to this story to be written, however. I’ve tried to relate these events as objectively as possible, but there is an entire installment to be written on what Clubhouse means. What it meant in September, what it means now, what it means to you, to me, and to the world. Leaning on my experience in being Very Online, I will attempt to reflect, summarize, and answer that all-important question in the last installment : Clubhouse’s Epilogue : More Social Experiment Than Social !